In the sixteenth century science was taught as 'natural philosophy'. The seventeenth century saw the institution of the University Chairs of Mathematics and Botany, followed the next century by Chairs of Natural History, Astronomy, Chemistry and Agriculture. During the eighteenth century, the University was a key contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment and it educated many of the most notable scientists of the time. It was Edinburgh's professors who took a leading part in the formation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. In 1785, Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry and discoverer of carbon dioxide, founded the world's first Chemical Society. The nineteenth century was a time of huge advances in scientific thinking and technological development. The first named degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Science was instituted in 1864, and a separate 'Faculty of Science' was created in 1893 after three centuries of scientific advances at Edinburgh. The Regius Chair in Engineering was established in 1868, and the Regius Chair in Geology in 1871. In 1991 the Faculty of Science was renamed the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and in 2002 it became the College of Science and Engineering. The college has 11,445 undergraduate and postgraduate students, and 1,455 academic staff.
All teaching is now done over two semesters (rather than 3 terms) – bringing the timetables of different Schools into line with one another, and coming into line with many other large universities (in the US, and to an increasing degree in the UK as well).
The University of Edinburgh is a member of the Russell Group of research-led British universities and one of several British universities to be a member of both the Coimbra Group and the LERU (League of European Research Universities). The university is also a member of Universitas 21, an international association of research-led universities. Edinburgh is a member of the 'Sutton 13' of top-ranked Universities in the UK. Beside, the university maintains historically strong ties with the neighbouring Heriot-Watt University for teaching and research.
Moreover, the University of Edinburgh has around 300 student exchange partners in nearly 40 countries world-wide including exchange programs with Peking University, Washington University in St. Louis, Karolinska Institute, and Caltech.
The University of Edinburgh offers a wide range of free online MOOC courses on three global platforms Coursera, Edx and FutureLearn.
As of 2019, Edinburgh had the 8th highest average entry qualification for undergraduates among UK universities, with new students averaging 189 UCAS points, equivalent to just above AAAaa in A-level grades. The university gives offers of admission to 20% of its 18 year old applicants, the 5th lowest amongst the Russell Group.
As the number of places available for Scottish and EU students are capped by the Scottish Government since students do not pay tuition fees, students applying from the UK and outside of the European Union have a higher likelihood of an offer. Excluding courses within the Edinburgh College of Art, the most competitive courses for Scottish/EU applicants in 2016 were International Relations, Oral Health Sciences and Business Studies with offer rates of 7%, 8% and 9% respectively. In comparison, students from the rest of the UK have a 55% chance of receiving an offer for International Relations and students from outside of the EU have a 79% chance of an offer for International Relations.
33.6% of Edinburgh's undergraduates are privately educated, the seventh highest proportion amongst mainstream British universities. As of the end of 2016, the university has a higher proportion of female than male students with a male to female ratio of 39:61 in the undergraduate population. The undergraduate student body is composed of 37% Scottish students, 31% from the rest of the UK, 11% from the EU and 20% from outside of the EU.
In the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework, Edinburgh was ranked fourth in the UK and first in Scotland. The results also indicate that the university is home to over 35% of Scotland's 4* research. In 2008, the RAE rated the medicine and informatics 1st in the UK. Edinburgh places within the top 10 in the UK and 2nd in Scotland for the employability of its graduates as ranked by recruiters from the UK's major companies. A 2015 government report found that Edinburgh is one of only two Scottish universities (along with St Andrews), London-based recruitment and elite professions such as investment banking consider applicants from. Edinburgh was ranked 13th overall in The Sunday Times 10-year average (1998–2007) ranking of British universities based on consistent league table performance.
The QS World University Rankings 2020 ranked Edinburgh 20th in the world. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 ranked Edinburgh 30th in the world. In 2020, the Academic Ranking of World Universities placed Edinburgh as 42nd overall and 6th in the UK. Edinburgh was ranked 37th in the world (6th in the UK) in the 2020 Round University Ranking. In 2020, it ranked 66th among the universities around the world by SCImago Institutions Rankings.
The noticeable disparity between the University of Edinburgh's research capacity, endowment and international status on the one hand, and its ranking in national league tables on the other, is largely on account of the central role which 'student satisfaction' plays in the latter. The University of Edinburgh was ranked bottom in the UK for teaching quality by its students in the 2012 National Student Survey. According to The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2015, "The university is trying to address undergraduates' concerns with a new personal tutor system and a peer support scheme. However, Edinburgh achieved an unwanted clean sweep of rock bottom rankings among universities in this year's National Student Survey (NSS) for questions to do with the promptness, usefulness and extent of academic feedback, suggesting the university still has a long way to go to turn around a poor position". In the 2017 guide, Edinburgh fell to its worst-ever position of joint 37th (placed with local Heriot-Watt University) in a domestic league table. The fall was attributed to lower NSS scores combined with a significant drop (78.6% to 73%) in the prospects of its graduates.
In the 2016 Complete University Guide, 19 out of the 50 subjects offered by Edinburgh rank within the top 10 nationally, with Architecture, Chemical Engineering, East and South Asian Studies, Linguistics, Middle Eastern and African Studies, Social Policy and Veterinary Medicine occupying the top five positions. The 2020 Times Higher Education World University Rankings listed Edinburgh in 36th place worldwide for social sciences.
The Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA) consists of the unions and the Student Representative Council. The union buildings include Teviot Row House, Potterrow, Kings Buildings House, the Pleasance, and shops, cafés and refectories across the various campuses. Teviot Row House is claimed to be the oldest purpose-built student union building in the world. EUSA represents students to the university and the outside world. It is also responsible for over 250 student societies at the University. The association has five sabbatical office bearers – a president and four vice presidents. The association is affiliated to the National Union of Students.
The city of Edinburgh is an important cultural hub for comedy, amateur and fringe theatre throughout the UK. Amateur dramatic societies at the University benefit from this, and especially from being based in the home of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Edinburgh University Theatre Company (EUTC), founded in 1890 as the Edinburgh University Drama Society, is known for running Bedlam Theatre, the oldest student-run theatre in Britain. Bedlam Theatre is an award-winning Edinburgh Fringe venue. The EUTC also fund and run acclaimed student improvised comedy troupe The Improverts during term time and fringe. Alumni include Ian Charleson, Michael Boyd, Kevin McKidd, and Greg Wise.
Edinburgh Studio Opera (formerly Edinburgh University Opera Club) is the only student opera company in Edinburgh. The group performs at least one fully staged opera each year.
The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (EUSOG) are an opera/musical theatre company founded by students in 1961 to promote and perform the comic operettas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, collectively known as Savoy Operas after the theatre in which they were originally staged.
The Edinburgh University Footlights are a musical theatre company founded in 1989 and produce two large scale shows a year.
Theatre Parodok, founded in 2004, is a student theatre company that aims to produce shows that are "experimental without being exclusive". They produce a large show each semester and one for the festival.
The Student is a weekly Scottish newspaper produced by students at the University of Edinburgh. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest student newspaper in the United Kingdom.
The Journal was an independent publication, established in 2007 by three students at the University of Edinburgh, and was also distributed to the four other higher education institutions in the city – Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Napier University, Queen Margaret University and the Edinburgh College of Art. It was the largest such publication in Scotland, with a print run of 14,000 copies and was produced by students from across the city. It folded in 2015.
Fresh Air is an alternative music student radio station, one of the oldest surviving student radio stations in the UK. It was founded in October 1992.
In September 2015, Edinburgh University Student Television (EUTV) became the newest addition to the student media scene at the university, producing a regular magazine styled programme, documentaries and other special events.
Edinburgh University's student sport consists of 67 clubs from the traditional rugby, football, rowing and Judo to the more unconventional Korfball and gliding. Over 67 sports clubs are run by the Edinburgh University Sports Union. The Scottish Varsity, known as the "world's oldest varsity match", is a rugby match played annually against the University of St Andrews. It is played at the beginning of the academic year and since 2015 it has been played at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the University of Edinburgh alumni and students secured four medals – three gold and a silver. The three gold medals were won by the cyclist Chris Hoy and the silver was won by Katherine Grainger in rowing.
In the 2012 Summer Olympics Edinburgh University Alumni topped the UK University Medals table with three gold medals, two from Chris Hoy and one from Katherine Grainger.
There are a number of campaigning societies at the university. The largest of these include the environment and poverty campaigning group People & Planet and the Amnesty International Society. International development organisations include Edinburgh Global Partnerships, which was established as a student-led charity in 1990. There is also a significant left-wing presence on campus, including an active anti-cuts group, an anarchist society, Edinburgh University Socialist Society, Marxist Society, feminist society, Young Greens, a Students for Justice in Palestine group, and the Edinburgh University Conservative and Unionist Association. Protests, demonstrations and occupations are regular occurrences at the university.
The activist group People and Planet took over Charles Stewart House in 2015 and again in 2016 in protest over the Universities investment in Arms and Fossil fuels In May 2015, a security guard was charged in relation to the occupations.
There are three student-run co-operatives on campus: Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative, providing affordable housing for 106 students; The Hearty Squirrel Food Cooperative, selling 'healthy, local, ethical, organic and Fairtrade' food; and the SHRUB Co-op, a 'swap and re-use hub' aimed at reducing waste and promoting sustainability. The co-operatives form part of the Students for Cooperation network.
The Edinburgh University Library pre-dates the university by three years. Founded in 1580 through the donation of a large collection by Clement Littill, its collection has grown to become the largest university library in Scotland with over 2.5 million volumes. These are housed in the main University Library building in George Square – one of the largest academic library buildings in Europe, designed by Basil Spence.
The library system also includes many faculty and collegiate libraries.
The university is associated, through alumni and academic staff, with some of the most significant intellectual and scientific contributions in human history. As of March 2019[update], 19 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with the university as alumni, faculty and researchers (three additional laureates acted as administrative staff), including one of the fathers of quantum mechanics Max Born, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, supramolecular chemist Sir Fraser Stoddart, biophysicist Richard Henderson, and pioneer of in-vitro fertilisation Robert Edwards. Computer scientists Robin Milner and Leslie Valiant, both Turing Award laureates, and mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah, Fields Medallist and Abel Prize winner, are associated with the university.
The university is further associated with scientists whose contributions include: laying the foundations of Bayesian statistics (Thomas Bayes), nephrology (Richard Bright), the theory of evolution (Charles Darwin), the initial development of sociology (Adam Ferguson), modern geology (James Hutton), antiseptic surgery (Joseph Lister), the classical theory of electromagnetism (James Clerk Maxwell), and thermodynamics (William John Macquorn Rankine); the discovery of carbon dioxide, latent heat and specific heat (Joseph Black), the HPV vaccine (Ian Frazer), the Higgs mechanism (Peter Higgs and Tom Kibble), the Hepatitis B vaccine (Kenneth Murray), nitrogen (Daniel Rutherford), chloroform anaesthesia (James Young Simpson) and SARS (Nanshan Zhong); and the invention of the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell), the hypodermic syringe (Alexander Wood), the kaleidoscope (David Brewster), the telpherage (Fleeming Jenkin), the vacuum flask (James Dewar), the ATM (John Shepherd-Barron), and the diving chamber (John Scott Haldane).
Other notable alumni and academic staff of the university have included signatories to the US Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, James Wilson and John Witherspoon, Prime Ministers Gordon Brown, Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell (the latter matriculated at Edinburgh, but did not graduate), actor Ian Charleson, journalist and presented Kirsty Wark, astronaut Piers Sellers, biologist Ian Wilmut, botanist Robert Brown, chemist Alexander R. Todd, composers Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Kenneth Leighton, economists Kenneth E. Boulding and James Mirrlees, editor Ella Carmichael, geologist William Edmond Logan, philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, physicists Sir David Brewster, Peter Guthrie Tait and Sheila Tinney, pilot Eric Brown, polymath Thomas Young, surgeons James Barry and Gertrude Herzfeld, writers J.M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Aeneas Francon Williams, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Anderson, Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, and former director general of MI5 Stella Rimington.
Olympic Games gold medallists from the university include six-times Olympic champion cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, rower Katherine Grainger and runner Eric Liddell.
In 2020, Peter Sawkins – who studies Accounting and Finance – won The Great British Bake Off. He is the youngest winner and the first Scottish winner of the show.
James Barry, surgeon
Alexander Graham Bell, engineer and inventor
Joseph Black, chemist
Mona Chalmers Watson, head of Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer
Charles Darwin, naturalist
David Hume, philosopher
James Hutton, geologist
W. D. Ross, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
James Clerk Maxwell, mathematical physicist
George Murray, Secretary of State for War
George Newman, Chief Medical Officer for England
Viscount Palmerston, Prime Minister
Sir Walter Scott, novelist and poet
Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist
At graduation ceremonies, the Vice-Chancellor caps graduates with the Geneva Bonnet, a hat which legend says was originally made from cloth taken from the breeches of John Knox or George Buchanan. The hat was last restored in 2000, when a note from 1849 was discovered in the fabric. In 2006, a University emblem taken into space by Piers Sellers was incorporated into the Geneva Bonnet.
Since 1695 the University of Edinburgh has awarded honorary degrees to over 2,900 individuals. The University of Edinburgh awards both honorary doctorate degrees (in all subjects including Medicine, Dental Surgery and Veterinary Medicine and Surgery) and honorary master's degrees.
Bill Gates (2006), Principal founder of Microsoft Corporation
Louise Richardson (2018), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
Susan Hockfield (2009), 16th President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Neil Armstrong (2007), First person to walk on the Moon
Liu Yandong (2017), Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China
Justin Trudeau (2017), 23rd Prime Minister of Canada
Michael D. Higgins (2015), 9th President of Ireland
Alan Greenspan (2004), 13th Chair of the Federal Reserve
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (2013), 11th President of India
Pascal Lamy (2011), 5th Director-General of the World Trade Organization
Irina Bokova (2010), 9th Director-General of UNESCO